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Essay Prompts for Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar

Prompt 1: Discuss the treatment of the mentally ill in the novel.

Choose one of the following prompts about Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and provide an essay that is around 1000-1500 words.

It must include an original title, introduction, thesis statement, body paragraphs that support your thesis with quotations from the text, a conclusion, and a works cited page.

Your essay must adhere to MLA style.

Remember that you may approach your chosen topic in any way you wish (within reason, of course). You do not need to answer each question provided. The questions are provided simply as tool to get you thinking about certain ideas that may or may not prove useful to your analysis.

Remember to stay focused on your analysis, only mentioning ideas and details that will support your thesis. Avoid summarizing the novel. You do not need to mention every major character and event in the novel. You only need to mention what pertains to your topic/analysis.

1. Discuss the treatment of the mentally ill in the novel. There is a great deal of stigma and fear surrounding mental illness in the novel. For example, Esther's mother is afraid other people will find out about her illness, and it will reflect badly on her as a parent, and Buddy Willard comments that no one will want to marry Esther after her illness.Why is there such fear surrounding mental illness as opposed to physical illness?

2. Discuss the significance of the bell jar as a metaphor for Esther's illness. What does her description tell readers about mental illness? Why is the bell jar a particularly apt metaphor for mental illness?

3. Discuss the character of Doreen, Esther's friend during her New York internship. Doreen does not really adhere to the social codes governing women that Esther worries so much about. She is brash and fearless, and someone Esther clearly admires. What might Doreen represent for Esther or other young women at the time?

4. Discuss Esther's role as the narrator in the novel. Esther is a clear example of an unreliable narrator, a first-person narrator who is also a character in the story. How is Esther's particular perspective important in the novel? How might using a first-person narrator help Plath better tell her story than if she had used a third-person narrator?

5. Discuss Buddy Willard and his behaviour throughout the novel. His behaviour often seems ridiculous to Esther, and he does some clearly foolish things, such as proposing at the sanatorium or saying that Esther will not care about poetry once she has children. Why does he do and say these things? How does the culture represented in the novel lead him to these behaviors? Why does he not realize that these behaviors are
inappropriate or may anger Esther?

6. Discuss the double standards Esther faces as a woman in the 1950s. Esther's society is blatantly sexist, demanding that women adhere to very strict moral standards that men are largely free from. Her society also expects women to follow a very narrow role, that of being a wife and mother, whether or not it suits her or will make her happy. Why might the society want women to follow these rules? Why are men exempted from these rules? How do these rules hurt Esther and other women?

7. What can readers learn from Esther's perspective and experiences? Most people dismiss the mentally ill as "crazy" and therefore have nothing to offer the world. Although Esther's behaviour and thoughts are bizarre and erratic at times, she does offer something to the reader by providing a firsthand account of mental illness. Why might her narrative be useful in this sense?

8. Looking at Esther's experiences observing or receiving medical treatment, discuss problems in the medical system portrayed in the novel. How do these flaws in the system harm patients? How and why have these flaws come to be accepted? 

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